Monday, 13 December 2010

Different kinds of tone

One aspect of horn playing which I feel is inadequately stressed is control over tone colour and how this can contribute to the effect of the music you are playing.

Generally, as you play louder, your tone will get more of a buzz, more "brassiness". Sometimes this is desirable, but sometimes not. If you are playing a solo in a Brahms or Bruckner symphony, what you want is a projected sound, one which will carry over the orchestra but not be brassy.

So the fundamental of tone control is to be able to vary the volume and vary the amount of  brassiness independently of each other.

Once you have acquired that kind of control, then you have to make a decision as to how much brassiness and volume to use in any particular context. Choosing the context involves considering the ensemble you are playing in, the period of the music and the composer, and the intent of the composer at any specific moment in the piece.

Let's consider the effect of ensemble on tone first.

Wind quintet and other small wind or wind/string chamber groups
This is the grouping where you need to go easy. A light airy tone is required here. Very rarely will you need to produce a volume higher than a solid orchestral mf, even where the part is marked ff. You are working with only a small number of other instruments, and the horn tone is already distinctive. Your basic tone/volume combination for a wind quintet should have a minimum of brassiness and be several notches quieter than you would use in orchestral playing.

From that foundation, you can project (more volume but no more brassiness) when you have a solo line, or occasionally punch out with more brassiness for special effects. But this should all be relative to the basic tone for the group.

Brass quintet or other brass ensemble
A brighter brassier tone is required here. The problem for the horn in a brass quintet is to match the clarity and brightness of the forward-facing bells of the trumpets and trombone. So you need a bigger tone with more buzz to it, and the notes need to be tongued more sharply to match up to the other instruments. But don't overdo it - you still want to sound characteristically like a horn and not an inferior sort of muffled trombone.

Orchestra - classical composers
I'm thinking Mozart and Haydn here, maybe earlier Beethoven as well, where you have a classical-sized orchestra of strings, double woodwind, 2 horns, 2 trumpets and timpani. No heavy brass. Generally, you need your wind quintet tone here, but with a bit more volume and oomph behind it to match up to the larger number of players involved. But remember that in these sorts of pieces, the horns are usually providing inner harmonies and only occasionally solo lines. So you are blending in and need to keep the volume down accordingly. Only occasionally for fanfare-style interjections to you add in a bit of brassiness for a special effect.

Orchestra - Romantic composers
Brahms, Bruckner and the rest. There is now a full section of heavy brass in the orchestra - trumpets, trombones, and sometimes a tuba as well. They will usually provide the fanfare stuff when needed - so you match up to them brass quintet style when required. But when playing solo or blending with the wind and strings, you go for the smoother tone of the non-brassy sounds, but with the volume increased if appropriate to match up to the larger string section you may be with. So your basic sound is smooth but with more weight behind it.

A note about Bruckner - the correct tone for Bruckner a rich and round and mellow with no brassiness at all - even in loud passages with the rest of the brass. Bruckner's loud bits should generally be thought of in terms of a chorale. Think of the sumptuous sound that a really good massed choir can produce. That's what you should aim for in Bruckner. The number of cases where you should allow more brassiness in his symphonies are vanishingly rare.

Orchestra - Modern composers
20th century music tends to have more astringent harmonies to it, and the tone colours required change correspondingly. You have to judge this according to the nature of the piece and the composer. For Elgar you would would have a tone not much different from Brahms. For Shostakovich you will spend a lot of time playing with a deliberately brassy tone as far removed from Bruckner as it is possible to get.

Wind Band/Military Band
Generally more volume. Massed ranks of clarinets will generally produce more sound than massed ranks of strings. Hopefully the conductor will have enough about him to be able to demand a proper piano from the band where necessary. Without strings, a wind band's range of tone colours is more limited, and so dynamic contrasts become more important. Don't worry of you feel that you can't be heard most of the time. You probably can't, and this is intentional. But you are still contributing to the overall effect. Remember that the horns are still mostly doing their usual thing of blending into the middle of the harmonies. It is just that horns inside a predominantly wind sound will be less obvious than horns with strings. Don't succumb to the temptation to blow louder so your unique contribution can be heard (even though it is only afterbeats).

Experience will gradually tell you what sort of tone is required in any individual situation. And if you aren't sure, then you work on the basis that you do what the principal horn is doing and blend with him/her. If you are the principal, then you ought to be able to think about this and make a decision. The decision you make will probably be different to some degree from what I would do in the same circumstance. That's fine, that is part of you finding your own voice and interpretation. But actually make a decision to vary your tone according to circumstances, in order to broaden your expressive range.

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